When you understand a customer, their business and their challenges on a deep level, you are able to identify emerging opportunities and risks and how you can respond to them before the customer may even be aware of them.
Allow yourself to be vulnerable
With the foundation of your relationship reset, the next step is to put yourself out there. Being willing to be vulnerable is one of the most difficult steps. In Western culture we tend to be unwilling to allow our fate to rest with anyone else. But it is that demonstration of faith that is required to create an intimate relationship. What does it mean to be mutually vulnerable? From an IT perspective, it mostly means giving up a significant amount of control. How can you help your customer make a decision, but let the decision truly be theirs? To put your knowledge and resources at their disposal to help them achieve their goals, truly putting their needs in front of yours, especially when their needs seem counter to the standards or policies that you've put in place? I remember the time a CIO I worked for was put in just this situation. She had spent months selling the senior management team on the need for standardization—and she had won. We were in the middle of a major project to get rid of all the disparate systems to go to a standardized platform. Then a mid-level executive approached her with a business problem. The challenge was that the best solution to this business problem was a system that ran on one of the platforms that we had just eradicated. Most CIOs would have simply said "no." How could you introduce a non-standard platform after having just invested all of your political capital selling the need for standardization? But this CIO was courageous. She knew that the system was the right solution and was willing to be mutually vulnerable to return to the senior management team and explain why she was going to break her own rule. You need to be ready to do the same.
Invest your time
The last thing that you need to do is be willing to invest the time necessary for intimacy to grow. Intimacy takes time. You must be willing to invest the time with your key customers to get to know them on a personal level. You must invest the time learning about them, their backgrounds, their business challenges and even their personal aspirations. It is only through this investment of time that the right kind of relationship will grow. You also need to be open to new learning opportunities. A friend of mine who is a frequent keynote speaker was talking to a CIO after one of his speeches not too long ago. He asked the CIO how often he spent time with the company's external customers. The CIO gave him a strange look and said, "I don’t. Why would I do that?" The entire idea seemed foreign to him. But to build these kinds of intimate relationships you need to not only be willing to invest time with your customers, but you must be willing to invest time caring about the things that they care about. And if you're doing the math, you will quickly realize that if you are to be an effective, modern IT leader, you will be spending a significant amount of your time everywhere but the inside of the IT department. That can be tough to manage and balance, but it means that you will need to become highly effective from an operational perspective so that you can invest more and more of your time building the kind of intimacy that will allow you to take your organization where it must go.
This is the seventh article in my eight-part series on creating a next-generation IT organization. The last step, which we will cover in the final article, is about bringing all of the pieces together. But the need for a deeply intimate relationship between you and your customers is perhaps the most critical step you can take in the process. You need to get through the first steps to have a chance of success, but intimacy is what will ultimately transform both your organization and you as a leader. I truly believe that it will only be the leaders who have the courage and humility to create these kinds of deeply intimate relationships that will survive. The only question is whether you have the courage to be intimate.
About the Author
Charles Araujo is a recovering consultant and accidental author of the book, The Quantum Age of IT: Why Everything You Know About IT is About to Change. He is an internationally recognized authority on IT Leadership and liberally shares his message of hope about the future of IT and what it means for all of us. He is the founder and CEO of the IT Transformation Institute and serves on the boards of itSMF USA and the Executive Next Practices Institute. You can follow him on Twitter via @charlesaraujo.
Editor's note: This is the seventh installment of an eight-part article series titled "Seven Steps to a Next-Generation IT Organization." To read the previous installment, "The Courage of the Transparent CIO," click here.